Last updated: 21.08.19

Time Management Tip: Engage in deep work

It is no secret: lack of time is a main cause of stress in the workplace.

We addressed this in our recent Top Tips for Time Management article. One of the methods we included was deep work, ‘the superpower of the 21st century’. But what does this mean, how is it done and what are the benefits?

Deep work, shallow work, and half-work

These three concepts have been developed by two different people, but they are intrinsically linked. Cal Newport explores the concepts of shallow work and deep work in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, and James Clear discusses the concept of half-work on his website.


Have you found yourself suddenly looking at your phone when you’re in the middle of a task for no important reason? Or idly checking your emails whilst on a call? Or trying to do too many tasks at a time?

This is half-work, and we probably do this more than we’d like to admit. It refers to when we are working but aren’t fully focused on the task at hand – an approach which prevents us from accomplishing what we need in a timely manner and one which has an enormous effect on the quality of work.

Shallow work

Shallow work refers to all the tasks that we can do whilst being distracted, such as responding to emails or going to meetings. These tasks are easy to replicate and don’t add much new value. A lot of our days are filled with these tasks, and though they project a fantastic image of busyness they actually prevent us starting and completing heavy-duty tasks, which require time, concentration and thought.

Deep work

Deep work, on the other hand, is a skill. It is the ability to concentrate and focus on a challenging task without distraction. It’s a type of intense concentration. It pushes your cognitive capabilities to the limit and produces high-quality work that is hard to replicate. But in a world and work culture that is demanding more and more of our concentration and time, it is a skill that is increasingly rare. But one that can bring about many benefits, especially to our time management.

The benefits of deep work

Increased productivity

Whereas half-work results in us taking twice as long to do half a job and shallow work distracts us from the more meaningful work, deep work allows us to be more productive and achieve more in less time.

Increased quality and focus

Deep works requires an increased focus, which will help produce quality work. But this needs to be learnt, and like learning anything, you get better with practice. Eventually, through continuous practice, you will be able to carry out deep work from one hour to numerous hours at a time.

It's fulfilling

Deep work makes a space for creativity without any distractions, which provides a welcome sense of peace. By completing a job to a high quality, we also feel a sense of fulfilment we wouldn’t have otherwise. We know we’ve done our best and put ourselves into the task completely, so we can embrace a deserved guilt-free break.

Personal development

It also helps personal development. It allows you to develop more challenging skills, which put you in a better position career-wise.

How to achieve deep work

As we’ve said, deep work is a type of intense concentration, yet concentration is something we don’t have much of any more. So how do we achieve this?

Remove those distractions

Technological developments are affecting our concentration levels, so it is important to remove these distractions. Every time you shift focus from one task to another, even if it is just a quick glance (i.e. checking a text message, or an email), you lose cognitive focus for a significant amount of time. When you return back to your original task your mind is still recovering from the loss of focus (and is probably still on the distraction, especially if it is one you couldn’t complete) and your productivity is decreased. Newport explains this effect as ‘attention residue’. The answer is to make sure you focus on one task at a time and remove these distractions.

How to remove distractions:

  • Blocking any sites that can be distractions
  • Hide your phone away
  • Plan to check your emails at certain times of the day
  • Move to a quiet place away from your colleagues and interruptions

Schedule your time

You need time and space to carry out deep work, and a schedule is key to this. Schedules will vary from person to person depending on their work. You may be the type who can plan a few consecutive days of deep work, or you may be the type has to fit in sessions of deep work here and there, alternating those between more menial tasks. As with any new skill, though, willpower needs to be applied, so whatever your schedule is, you need to be disciplined and stick to it. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve in this time.

Take control of the shallow work

Shallow work often can’t be avoided, but there is a way you can get control of it. As part of your schedule, plan time in specifically to deal with those tasks, therefore freeing yourself for the deep work.

Embrace boredom

The tasks that require deep work will be difficult ones. They will stretch, challenge and frustrate you. It’s during these tasks where you will feel bored, when your mind will be screaming to be distracted. Embrace this. It’s by working through this sense of boredom that we allow ourselves to carry out deep work successfully. That’s why the practice is needed. We aren’t used to sitting with these uncomfortable feelings, but as you do, you will start to see what you can achieve, and that sense of achievement will be incredibly rewarding.

Create a ritual

Deep work isn’t an easy state to get into, you can’t just switch it on and off like a light. You need to ease your mind into it and get rid of any distracting thoughts. People have different methods of achieving this – Charles Darwin would walk laps around his grounds before embarking on writing his books; Cal Newport himself would always take time to set his desk up before starting his work, and others meditate. It doesn’t matter what ritual you have, just aim to get into the right mindset.

Mental health is something we take seriously at Virtual College. We have created various useful resources, courses and helpful tools which will benefit the mental health and wellbeing of you and your staff. If you are considering developing mental health training for your staff, contact us on 01943 605976 or email us at to discuss how we can support your training needs.

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